National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

By Ralph C. Wood
Westminster John Knox Press, 169 pages, $15
Author examines Rings' theology

Tolkien's trilogy reflects pivotal Christian themes

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

There is no premium on current commentary now that “The Return of the King -- the third and final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- has finally appeared in movie houses. Even the most wary cannot avoid The Lord of the Rings phenomenon. The movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus has seemingly enveloped global culture. Many of us are now engaged in discussing the final episode as we exit the theaters, or are revisiting the first two acts in the series on DVDs at home or in classrooms. Amid the cacophony of opinion, can some essential truth be extracted? Is a clarifying vision possible?

Ralph C. Wood, an interdisciplinary professor in the departments of religion and English at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and at its Truett Theological Seminary, offers one of the more substantive takes on the famous cycle. His new book The Gospel According to Tolkien is based on the novel, not the Peter Jackson production, and the author claims there is a difference between the two.

Wood is not impressed with the movie rendition. He criticizes Jackson for removing from the script the evidences of Providence he claims are so important to the original work. Wood also believes the movie’s portrayal of evil is spiritually unrealistic. It is made too obviously evil, he says. The movie fails to demonstrate, as Tolkien’s books did, that evil often appears guilelessly as good intentions and subtle, alluring moral exploitation. Hardly, he claims, are we shown the terrible social and political price that evil exacts.

Tolkien claimed he wrote “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision.” That prompts the question: “Can the ‘Lord of the Rings’ screenplay be interpreted from a Christian perspective like its literary counterpart has been?”

Wood helps us critique the movie by providing his assessment of the literary masterpiece. But his study can also facilitate our understanding of key religious themes that course through both text and film, whether our quest is for sheer entertainment, personal enrichment or those deeper meanings.

Sr. Rose Pacatte, a media specialist from Culver City, Calif., writing in The Tidings newspaper of the Los Angeles archdiocese, has suggested that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory from which direct Christian application can be made. Rather, it is a huge, overarching narrative that explains how we might organize our lives and understand it better. We learn from the story what we bring to it, she says.

Wood claims his work is not so much a scholarly as a theological meditation. He employs major doctrines of the Christian faith as a template for his reading of Tolkien. He sets out his goal in the preface to the book: “I seek nothing more or less than to make the Christian dimension of this great book accessible to the ordinary interested reader of Tolkien.”

The book divides Lord of the Rings into five parts paralleling five pivotal themes of a Christian understanding of salvation history. They include creative activity (Wood, the literary specialist, teases from the narrative a doctrine of good, pristine, hobbitic Middle-earth beginning); calamity (the biblical fall, the realization that something has gone wrong, is depicted in mythical terms by the ring with its evil power and influence over those possessing it); human counteraction (the calling forth of virtues that serve as the highest forms of creaturely response; the forming of a fellowship to destroy the ring and resolve the resulting predicament); divine corrective, and finally, consummation -- the destruction of the ring and the completion of all necessary things this side of eternity.

To graphically illustrate the themes of the ring cycle with rich metaphoric insight, Tolkien borrows generously from an academic specialty of his -- the ancient, defining symbols and myths of Germanic and Nordic cultures. Wood believes that these, and the primal, formative myths of many of the world’s great cultures, serve as antecedents and preparations for understanding the Gospel. The Gospel, Tolkien says, is the ultimate fairy story. It is not a human invention but the fulfillment of all other primary narratives.

The author’s protestations notwithstanding, his book is potentially more than a theological meditation. Some may wish to plumb greater scholarly depths as a result of reading Wood. They will find natural and intriguing ramps of departure suggested by what is provided here. They may, for example, want to investigate more deeply the universal meaning of myth; the similarities and differences between the Christian myth and those of the other great religious traditions.

The Gospel According to Tolkien directs a probing searchlight into Tolkien’s book and Jackson’s movies. It anticipates and elucidates some of the great theological questions of our time. Read it to gain expanded personal insight, to enhance discussions in your parish and to provide spirited learning opportunities in the classroom and other settings.

Wayne A. Holst is a parish educator at St. David’s United Church, Calgary, Canada. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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